Text: Bertram Weiß
Photo: Thomas Eugster, Michael Hudler, Jens Umbach
Anita Gohdes’s PGP or “pretty good privacy” code is 6A2F2593. Using it, anyone can send her encrypted emails only she can read. This allows her to communicate with scientists all over the world. She also uses technical devices to obscure her location when she is online, because if there is one thing her research has taught her it is that you are never unobserved on the internet.
Professor Gohdes, 30, is a political scientist at Zurich University. She calls herself a researcher into repression: how despotic regimes exercise power – and particularly how they use the internet to do so. Like all technology, she says, the internet is ambivalent: it can both serve and harm human progress. So while the internet helps dissidents to organise protests, it also offers repressive rulers many ways to oppress their citizens.
Gohdes gathers information from countries such as Egypt and Bahrain, Ethiopia and China. Looking at the Assad regime in Syria, she analysed whether there was a link between internet control and state violence, and whether the internet was being used against opponents. She cross-checked data about some 60,000 deaths compiled by activists and research institutions with fluctuations of the internet documented elsewhere. She concluded that if the government had temporarily blocked access to the internet in Syria, then it meant more people were likely to have died through state violence then. About 9% more people, she calculated.
“It is difficult to gain an insight, but my results strongly indicate that the internet is being used as a weapon.” If the government wants to eliminate opponents, it shuts down the internet and prevents communication. If it reopens internet access, perhaps to let people use Facebook, it is not necessarily a sign of liberalisation. Rather it indicates the regime’s strategy for identifying activists, to keep track of what they are planning, who they are meeting and what passwords they are using.
“After the Arab Spring there was widespread euphoria: it was claimed that social media by their very nature contribute to liberation and democratisation in dictatorships. They were ‘gentle weapons’. This elation was naive,” she says.
Gohdes’s research, which has received awards from the Peace Science Society (International) among others, requires solid expertise in handling large volumes of data – and international sharing. She has been a guest researcher at Essex University, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in San Francisco and the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It taught her one thing above all: “It is only when scientists from many countries join together and are pro-active in making their results public that they can make an impact.”
Her parents came from South Africa and she grew up in Germany’s Rhineland. “Human rights and injustice were always issues at home,” she says. Perhaps it set her on her path at an early age. She is now a committed supporter of non-government organisations and puts her results at the disposal of Amnesty International.
There’s one thing she is sure about: she cannot be neutral as a researcher concerned with human rights. Her methods must conform to strict scientific rules of transparency and reproducibility. “My motivation, however, is normative: I stand for freedom and democracy.”
Growing up in south-west Germany, Karl Sebastian Mandel, 31, dreamed of becoming a naturalist. He was fascinated by glaciers and how they grind their way deep into the Earth’s surface over thousands of years. But then, while studying geoscience and materials science, he found his attention drawn to nanoparticles, which consist of only a few thousand atoms. Now he is head of particle technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research.
“In terms of scale, a nanoparticle is to a football what a football is to the whole Earth,” he explains. But their chemical and physical properties are very different from the larger building blocks of matter. They can give materials whole new capabilities, such as influencing their electrical conductivity, making them shine, or protecting them from heat or dust.
Mandel soon realised that somebody who understood the laws at the nano level could make more of a difference than a mere naturalist. “I became a scientist to be useful to people. It is not just the yearning for knowledge that drives me. We have too many problems in the world for that.”
Take, for example, water pollution from drug residues, agricultural fertiliser run-off and industrial heavy metals. Creeping contamination of lakes, rivers or oceans causes long-term damage; in several countries the drinking water is already contaminated. Mandel and his team of more than a dozen researchers are looking for ways to harness nanoparticles to solve specific problems such as this. For instance, he developed special particles that bind with copper, mercury or phosphates in effluent and can then be filtered out by magnets. This cleans the water then the particles combined with the contaminants are placed in a solution, allowing raw materials to be extracted, which industry can then re-use. The magnetic particles can be used again and again.
It was a laborious journey to get there. “It was a magnificent moment when after many failed attempts we finally had a system that could really fish out substances.” For developing the tiny magnets, Mandel was awarded the Deutscher Studienpreis, one of the most prestigious prizes for young researchers in Germany.
At the moment he is testing the system in a municipal sewage plant used for teaching and research. It is too early to tell if sewage plants of the future will be collecting points for raw materials or will ever be able to totally purify water. But Mandel and his colleagues are already working on new applications, because the nano-magnets can be customised with individual features. They can mark materials invisibly to the naked eye, with a barcode as it were, so their origin can be traced.
“A particular development may never be applied on a large scale, because it does not make it on to the market. But that, too, is part of progress,” says Mandel. “Always testing and trying something new until at last perhaps one really good thing is left. Progress needs movement – and great tenacity.”
But he says this is mostly lacking in corporate development departments. That is why he joined the Fraunhofer Institute, Europe’s biggest application-oriented research organisation, which lies at the interface between industry and science. “It gives me more opportunity to search for a solution over a long period, to wait for a new idea, a creative thought. Perhaps it will be a one-off, a question that was never asked before.”
Prof Simon Lentner, 31, prefers to work at night. At home, and in the hours of darkness, he is most likely to find the peace and quiet he needs for his mental expeditions into the empire of numbers. He sits on the sofa or at the dining table in his flat and does research with a pencil and paper. “It’s like trying to open a shell in the hope of finding a pearl in it. You turn it this way and that, have a go, try again, and pick other shells that look similar to try with them.”
While still at school in Bavaria, he immersed himself in textbooks, took part in mathematics competitions, and even started university studies. Today, he works on algebra at Hamburg University’s interdisciplinary Centre for Mathematical Physics and is also co-founder of the IT firm PerfectPattern. His concern is symmetries that are more complicated than those of cubes or hexagons, but conform to similar principles and can be described with numbers and symbols. “Mathematicians try to classify them, try to prove they have found all possible variants, but often discover exotic exceptions.”
The amazing thing is that physicists trying to analyse the interplay between space, time and matter are also encountering this. That is why Lentner and his colleagues at the Centre for Mathematical Physics meet up with scientists from Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), the German national research centre, investigating the structure of matter with particle accelerators. Together they aim to establish what part the abstract world of symmetries plays in the principles of the real world.
“Exchanging experiences helps us find new approaches, get to know new tools and decide what direction to take,” says Lentner. “But one factor makes a fundamental difference between mathematics and many other disciplines: revolutionary breakthroughs succeed only through long and sustained thought by individuals. And yet for millennia all of them have been working to build the same building together.”
Lentner does not use Facebook and doesn’t have a smartphone. “We live in an age when attention spans are getting shorter and shorter,” he says. “I need long curves in my life.” He sees the short spans as a danger, not just for mathematics. That is why his consultations with students or postgraduates do not take one hour, as is more usual in universities, but three. He learned to do this in Russia, where pure mathematics is still highly valued.
According to Lentner, mathematics institutes in Germany are coming under increasing pressure to show their work has practical use. Some years ago he co-founded PerfectPattern, which looks at organising different print tasks on templates to minimise wastage of paper and printing plates. The problem is mathematically far from trivial. Mathematicians and programmers are jointly developing software that analyses aspects of a print run such as time, costs, materials and use of capacity. Today, the firm employs a staff of 10, has investors and runs operations for several customers. But Lentner wants to devote himself entirely to basic research once more.
To him, mathematics is not simply what is taught in schools but a cultural technology, an achievement by humankind that trains the mind, and is perhaps even part of the art of living. He wants to continue it, for himself and for others, for example in Die Junge Akademie (the Young Academy), a project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina. As one of 50 researchers, Lentner has been invited to join this organisation, the first of its kind in the world, which aims to ensure scientific progress is not to left to the old and the established.
Lentner feels at home there. He can exchange views with colleagues from other disciplines and promote what he himself once chose as the title of a lecture: “Courage for the greatest and the smallest, the ever-present and the abstract.”